New Releases: Wind River

Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River pitches us into an unforgiving wintry environment and declares once and for all, as if we didn’t know already, that this writer-director will be a survivor. And yes, his movie grips and informs and entertains along the way.

Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a big-city-loneliness FBI agent, finds herself tracking a rapist and murderer, his victim a teenager, in the white wastes of Wyoming. Her ‘team’ consists of a veteran Native American cop, with his own skeleton crew, and an accomplished hunter with an axe to grind. So far, so genre.

Banner finds herself adrift in the physical environment, as the temperature hits home and the storms rage in, and in the emotional landscape too, as various characters (all well drawn, all well played, all the way down the cast) try to deal with punishing grief and loss – some of it old, some of it freshly gory, if inevitably frozen over.

Sheridan, writer of the labyrinthine drug cartel thriller Sicario (2015, directed by Denis Villeneuve) and the engaging, blue collar, modern day Western Hell Or High Water (2016, dir. David Mackenzie), takes the helm and maintains a distinctive attention to detail that pays off in some finely layered moments, unforgettable vignettes of humanity that typically contain deep regret.

Like Emily Blunt’s character in Sicario, Olsen is the one female voice, struggling to be heard as the male of the species do their dangedest to rip apart the vulnerable and the downtrodden – as feral as the wolves, mountain lions and other predators that hunter Cory dons his snow-white camouflage to eliminate.

As in Hell Or High Water, when the action comes, it comes thick, fast and bloody. But while it’s the males who do (most of) the damage, Olsen’s passionate and driven heroine can hold her own when the high-powered weapons start doing their dirty work. And one of the most affecting of many highly emotional scenes sees two guys meet, face to face, knowing all too well what the other has lost, and the silence speaks volumes of Cormac McCarthy.

However, this critic still has a few reservations (if you can excuse the pun – Wind River is the Indian Reservation where the action is centred). While Sheridan has rightly been praised for his skill with dialogue, Wind River perhaps blows too wordy.

Peopled, as it is, by so many naturally taciturn characters, with so much to hide and so much they are trying to forget (but never forgive?), they willingly take turns to recount just how they turned out this way, who or what they blame for it, and how big a part the snow and the silence played in their descent into their own personal hell. These unlikely confessions and on-the-nose summations tend to incongruously punctuate the otherwise entirely believable milieu.

Having said that, many of the declarative speeches of identity and homespun ‘how to survive’ philosophies are vital elements of memorable scenes. So let’s give Sheridan the benefit of the doubt and say it is unlikely such a fine filmmaker could be so innocent of the fact that cinema works best when it can show, not tell.

In Sicario, Blunt’s Kate Macer found herself stumbling her way through a minefield of corruption and immorality and came out of it, in many ways, little the wiser – compromised personally and professionally. Here, Jeremy Renner impresses as Cory, an outwardly resolute, encouragingly empathetic but similarly flawed character.

Cory declares that today, at this time and in this world, as a parent, a child cannot be allowed out of your sight for a second – you cannot let your guard down, not for a heartbeat, he says. And therein lies his weakness – who could raise a child in such a suffocating manner? Or live with the blame when your guard slips? But if we cannot admire Cory’s self-defeating philosophy, we can surely admire his commitment, and his dedication to ‘do the right thing’.

This ‘hunter’ is reminiscent of another ‘Searcher’ – John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, in John Ford’s masterful Western The Searchers (1956). Sheridan, it seems, has learned from the greats that genre is not a straitjacket to limit creativity but a recognisable, resolute starting place from which to navigate the whole world.

Wind River boasts a fine supporting cast including Jon Bernthal, Tokala Clifford, Graham Greene (from Dances With Wolves and Thunderheart), and Gil Birmingham (Hell Or High Water). The wonderfully atmospheric score is by Nick Cave and his long-time collaborator Warren Ellis.

Wind River is in UK cinemas now.

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